Saturday, October 19, 2013

This Day in TV History (Godfrey Reveals His Mr. Hyde)

Oct. 19, 1953—In perhaps the most shocking moment in the life of a young mass medium, Arthur Godfrey—who, through his amiable persona, became one of the first stars to cross over from radio to TV, the center of one of the first successful variety shows and perhaps the prime asset of the Columbia Broadcast System—fired on air a singer he had discovered, Julius LaRosa.

Much to the host’s chagrin, however, the incident had worse consequences for himself than for his onetime protégé. Godfrey’s astonishing announcement –that LaRosa’s rendition of “Manhattan” was the 23-year-old singer’s “swan song”—became an instant national punchline, forcing a  mass devaluation of the host’s reputation and inspiring screenwriters to come to terms with notions of reputation and exposure in this new media age.

The following year, a telltale self-exposure on TV did in another bullying personality. Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to discredit the lawyer representing the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, by stating that one of his firm’s young attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. Welch’s rejoinder—“Have you no sense of decency?"—crystallized mounting concerns about the Wisconsin Senator’s recklessness, and he was soon on the path to irrelevance.

What the two incidents had in common was that they were live. In time, entertainers and politicians alike learned that scripted spectacles worked best in concealing their flaws.

Major elements of the Godfrey-LaRosa controversy were worked into characters and plots of two screenplays and one teleplay released in either 1956 or 1957: the film The Great Man, starring and directed by Jose Ferrer; the teleplay The Comedian, starring Mickey Rooney in the title role and directed by John Frankenheimer; and the cult cinema classic A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith and directed by Elia Kazan. All three involve a beloved entertainer who, behind the scenes, makes life hell for those who work for him.

That’s a pretty good description of Godfrey, a radio personality for CBS who came into his own with his emotionally affecting coverage of the funeral procession of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. He was intelligent and shrewd enough to realize that stuffy and self-important wouldn’t go over with radio audiences. That informal manner he perfected—enhanced by his ukulele-playing and kidding of his show’s sponsors (though never the products)—enabled him to make CBS serious money, on one show after another: Arthur Godfrey Time, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and the show from which LaRosa was booted, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. At one point, “The Old Redhead” was believed to have generated 12% of CBS TV’s revenues, according to Robert Metz’s book, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. CBS was so eager to keep this money machine working around the clock that, when he had hip replacementg surgery, it arranged to broadcast from his home in Leesburg, Va., through a signal carried by microwave towers built on the property.

Behind the scenes, Godfrey was developing into a control freak. He insisted, for instance, that his “friends” all take music and dancing lessons, and he was not shy about telling cast members that as soon as he raised them up, he could destroy them.

After the firing of LaRosa, Godfrey indicated that his young star had been fired for lack of “humility.” Several other factors seemed to be behind the firing, however:

*LaRosa had recently gotten a hit, with resulting fan mail exceeding his boss’s.
*LaRosa had hired a manager—a no-no for Godfrey.
*LaRosa had blown off a dance lesson, which he, like many other male entertainers of the time, regarded as effeminate.
*LaRosa had grown close to one of the show’s other regulars, the singer Dorothy McGuire (of the McGuire Sisters--not the actress)—infuriating Godfrey, who did not want romantic competition.

When Godfrey died in 1983, three decades after the firing of LaRosa, an entire generation had grown up with little if any appreciation for what he meant to the history of broadcasting. He certainly did not lack for intelligence and ambition, and he was not afraid to pick up the banner of a cause when he felt it right (e.g., anti-cancer campaign a decade before the Surgeon-General epochal report on smoking, refusal to endorse the SST or the detergent Axiom because of the dangers they posed to the environment).

But he seemed to learn nothing from his mistakes. For instance, only a year or so after the LaRosa incident, Godfrey—a licensed pilot whose advocacy of air travel led to his induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame—buzzed the tower at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey after its instructions annoyed him. You would think he would have thought seriously about another display of petulance, but he did not. The result: suspension of his license for six months.

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